I never really figured myself drawn to routines. I leave things to the last minute, can’t stick to exercise schedules, don’t plan meals, and often use the shuffle function on my CD player. If people were to identify key adjectives about me, ‘disorganised’ might well be in their top ten. So while I didn’t see myself in that part of the diagnostic criteria, that “inflexible adherence to routines,” it was there all the time, hidden in the adrenaline-fueled drive towards trying to be someone that was not me.
It was only when, a year or so after finding out I was autistic, I looked back over my life with a critical eye and got hit with one of those “ohhh, so that’s why…” revelations that so many of us experience, and realised that I follow routines all the time – but they are so ingrained in my day-to-day functioning that they aren’t always obvious.
I love the beauty of a well-planned system; there is nothing I like more than understanding a process inside out, and then figuring out a clean, efficient and calm way to get things done. Give me a chaotic workplace and I’ll be planning a clear and precise user-manual within weeks. I’ve noticed that other people enjoy the spontaneity and freedom of re-inventing the wheel each time, but I simply don’t have the energy for that. I just want to get on with the job and get it right.
I joke that I’m a control freak, but it’s not that at all. If I am low on energy reserves and high on stress hormones, the predictability of a good routine is calming. I don’t have to waste valuable energy figuring out what to do next. I don’t need to wake with an adrenaline jolt in the night wondering if I did all the things I was supposed to. I don’t need to struggle to find the words for repeatedly explaining processes to people who keep trying to do things a different way and finding it’s not working out for them.
Take getting dressed – a ‘basic skill’ which took me about five years longer to learn than most kids and is still difficult for me some days – I might get dressed at any time of the morning, but the clothes have to go on in the right order. Sometimes I try and change it, shake it up, do something super risky like put my top on before I pull on my jeans, but it immeditely unbalances me – I’m now far more likely to put that top on back to front and inside out, or fall over negotiating getting my legs in my jeans. Then I spend the day feeling wrong and vulnerable, like I forgot to put on those clothes altogether.
In my household mealtimes are set, homework time is set, the times when everyone gets ready for bed is set. Each person knows, at any given time of the day, what they should be doing (and yes, everyone has plenty of free time – because free time is timetabled in too). For years, I told myself this rigidity was to ensure a calm and happy household while our daughters were young. Now that they are teenagers and they have less need for routine, we’ve come to realise that much of it was really just to keep me calm and happy. (Luckily my family is very obliging which means that at 8.00 pm precisely we always have time to snuggle up and watch exactly ninety minutes of TV together before bed!)
Before I was assessed as being autistic, I would often try and rely less on my routines – I would try and be a bit less predictable, stuck-in-the-mud, rigid – but it wasn’t good for me. Trying to be a bit more free-spirited in my actions just caused me to feel more anxious and confused, and used up cognitive energy that I didn’t have spare, but over the past few years I’ve come to really appreciate a good routine as being calming, settling and less tiring.
Last year, I had a public health master’s module that started at 9.00, two bus rides from home. It was ridiculously hard walking into that lecture theatre by myself each Friday, trying not to trip walking up the aisle then settling in a seat that was near a window and had nobody sat behind me, distracting me with chat, eating, typing, breathing… It was also difficult to stay in my seat for the duration, the instinct to flee was strong. But if I left home even earlier, when it was cold and dark, I had time to follow a routine beforehand.
I’d arrive on campus an hour early, go to a different building where I knew the loos were rarely used (and so the risk of the noisy hand drier was low); go to my usual canteen to get coffee in my own reusable cup, fill up my water bottle, check I had everything I needed in my bag, check my twitter account in a quiet area and then recheck my bag. Only then was I ready to face the lecture theatre. Missing any step of this important routine of the morning made it significantly more difficult to be present when I needed to be.
l realise that much of my life is like that. If I have an effective and reliable routine, I am able to push myself through situations I’d struggle to manage otherwise. Honouring my occasional “inflexible adherence to routines” actually enables me to be more flexible when I need to be, not less.